December 2nd, 2011
Just back from Asia, and most latterly Seoul, Korea. The picture above was taken yesterday at the famous Jogyesa Temple, first erected in 1395. I had to tiptoe carefully around dozens of women praying in front of the golden Buddhas to get a decent shot, although postcards would show the space more elegantly, I am sure. You can see the outline of several of these women in the foreground. They can’t be too happy about all the tourists invading their space, but perhaps they can tune us out better than we know. This site, the centre of Zen Buddhism in South Korea, is a serene spot of colour and calm smack in the middle of one of the busiest cities on the planet. After a few days of business with some Seoul-based universities, I was grabbing a few hours of tourism before heading out to the magnificent Incheon airport.
Travel is enlightening, as any Buddhist would know. I have come away with a strong impression of the intense and even crushing competiveness of Korean culture, manifested powerfully in all my exchanges with university officials. I had some sense of this before, but there is no substitute for being there, experiencing it firsthand. Without exception, every official felt compelled to insist on the special ranking of this or that department or academic program, claiming first or second place in everything from acupuncture to business studies. It’s not as if I was asking. This is a disarming, dizzying kind of patter, a not-so-subtle-form of one-upmanship that sounds quite odd to Western ears. As in China, the Korean university system depends heavily on rankings, but the relentless focus on where one’s university is located on the hierarchy seemed more obvious to me in Korea. The need to claim uniqueness even extended to the tour guide who traipsed a rag-tag bunch of us through the Seoul rain yesterday morning. She was lovely and smart and full of juicy facts, but she also kept insisting, without a trace of irony or modesty, that Korean culture had not only borrowed heavily from Chinese and Japanese cultures but that it had “improved” them both. She also boasted that Koreans had better teeth and skin than their neighbours to the south and east, and in general had the edge in almost every level of daily life. Hard to imagine a Canadian tour guide saying anything similar about how much we had improved on American life, even if she believed so.
There are charming sides to such self-consciousness. As an official visitor from Memorial I was showered with gifts, emerging from my meetings with shopping bags of pottery and chopsticks, a traditional jewelry box, silk–pretty much everything a girl could want in a whirlwind tour of a foreign city. I was also feted with elaborately prepared meals, each more elaborate and delicious than the one before, although I shuddered to think about the legions of invisible women in the kitchens who were responsible for the immaculate preparation and presentation. We don’t do hosting this way in the West, not like this. We arrange for meals and toast our guests, provide respectable hotel rooms and sometimes offer a tour of the local hot spots, but, right or wrong, we are just less formal, more relaxed about the business of entertaining—certainly in our universities. We begin with the assumption that we are all the same. Not true in Seoul. Clearly some are better than others.
I think I now understand a little bit better why South Korea as a whole ranks first among O.E.C.D. nations in suicide and is routinely among the leaders in developed nations. There was a grim noise earlier this year when four students and a professor killed themselves at one of South Korea’s most prestigious universities, just before exam time in May. Surveys show young Koreans to be a chronically unhappy group, the unhappiest in the O.E.C.D. nations. The pressure to be the best must be excruciating. Of course, it also makes for a highly advanced society, one that builds efficient cars and designs beautiful buildings, invests heavily in education and technology, and believes in both traditional medicine and sophisticated science.
We don’t yet have many Korean students at Memorial, but it is tempting to want to recruit them here. One would hope they would feel more relaxed, more comfortable with their studies, competitive sure, but not always compelled to think in terms of being first or nothing. We will see what comes of these meetings and our repeated expression of mutual interest and collaborative opportunities. As the wise and utterly charming president of Kookmin University observed over a spectacular lunch one day, it’s ultimately all about people—how we connect with each other. I’ll drink some soju to that.